Rememberance of things past - Scotland’s lasting support for Pinochet’s victims

On September 11 1973, a military coup in Chile ousted the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, installing a dictatorship in its place. General Augusto Pinochet presided over 16 years of state-sponsored torture, murder, detention and “disappearing.” Countless Chilean citizens were forced into exile; 500 came to Scotland.

The Chile 40 Years On network was established in the UK to commemorate the tragedy of “Chile’s September 11”. But it also celebrates the resilience of Chileans who continue to fight for justice and, for those who came here, a helping hand from a few Scots along the way.

A wonderful line-up of Chilean cultural events continues through the beginning of October. Last Friday, I visited Edinburgh City Chambers for an evening of poetry and Chilean wine, food, and song in celebration of Pablo Neruda.

Neruda was a Chilean poet of the Left, an articulate supporter of Allende’s government who died less than two weeks after the coup. His countryman, poet Pablo San Martin Varela, read Neruda’s “Sobre una poesia sin pureza” (“On impure poetry”), a manifesto of Neruda’s dedication to a poetry in praise of everyday working people who give blood, sweat and tears for their families and their country. It is, he says, a poetry “stained by food and shame, a poetry with wrinkles, observations, dreams, vigilence, prophecies, declarations of love and hate, beasts, blows, idylls, political ideologies, denials, doubts, affirmations, taxes."

Neruda bestowed poetic grandeur onto everyday joys and trials. Edinburgh’s Makar (poet laureate) Ron Butlin, in true people-power Neruda style, entertained the local crowd with a poem venting the spleen of the people of Edinburgh through the eyes of a lowly and despised tram.

Scots Makar Liz Lochhead's contribution was characteristically powerful. She read from Neruda’s “Ode to Salt”. But, most poignantly, she spoke of her friend British poet Adrian Mitchell’s support of Chilean teacher and folksinger Victor Jara and his family.

Victor Jara was a vocal supporter of the Allende government. On the 11 September 1973, he was rounded up with other “political dissidents” and taken to the Chile Stadium where he was tortured for several days. The guitarist’s hands were broken amid jibes that he play the guitar for his captors, (in defiance, he sang “Venceremos” – “We will win out” – instead) and, on September 16, he was killed.

Adrian Mitchell was a friend to Joan Jara when she fled Chile for Britain after her husband’s murder. Liz read his poem “Victor Jara of Chile”: “he lived like a shooting star. He fought for the people of Chile with his songs and his guitar. And his hands were gentle; his hands were strong.”

At 86, Joan is still campaigning to have Pedro Barrientos extradited from the US to face trial for torturing and shooting Victor Jara. Though a judge in Chile issued an international arrest warrant last year, the US has not complied and Barrientos remains in Florida where he lives as a US citizen.

“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.” – Pablo Neruda

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